Sterling silver, also called fine silver, is a beautifully lustrous cool-toned precious metal favored in fine jewelry among other products. The most reflective of all metals (excluding mercury), sterling silver looks stunning by itself and brings out the best hues in an array of colorful gemstones.
Sterling silver can be polished to a higher sheen than platinum. In fact, Ag, the chemical symbol for silver, comes from a word that means “white and shining.” The surface of silver can boast that shiny, polished appearance, or can be brushed, satin, matte, sandblasted, antiqued or oxidized (chemically blackened).
In order to be called sterling silver, a metal must be made up of a minimum of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% alloy (meaning other metals), including but not limited to copper and nickel. The alloy is added to pure silver to make the metal more durable, tougher and harder. Sterling silver is designated a fineness of “925.” Pieces with sterling silver may be marked “sterling.”
Minimize scratches on sterling silver by storing it in its own compartment in your jewelry box or in a cloth pouch. Sterling silver may also be stored in sealed polyethylene bags.
Known for its fiery combination of colors, opal is called the “Cupid stone” because it was said to reflect the complexion of the Greek god of love. The ancient Romans believed the gem was the symbol of hope, good luck and purity. Today, it remains a symbol of hope and inspiration. With a name stemming from the Latin word for “precious stone,” opal is considered October’s birthstone and is traditionally given as a 14th anniversary gift.
Opals are luminous and iridescent stones with inclusions of many colors called "fire." It is sometimes called the "queen of gems" because it can flash patterns of color representing every hue of the rainbow. In fact, most stones are usually cut into domed cabochons to enhance the color play. The brilliance and pattern of an opal’s fire determines its value. Opals with strong flashes of red fire are generally the most prized, while stones with blue or green flashes are more common and subsequently less valuable. Stone size also helps determine price, since the gem is very rare in larger sizes.
In order to produce a stone that is less expensive than a solid opal, an opal doublet can be manufactured. It is composed of a thin layer of opal glued on top of another mineral (usually a black onyx or ironstone, which enhances the opal's color). An opal triplet can be made with a thin layer of opal sandwiched between a layer of clear quartz on top and a layer of obsidian or ironstone on the bottom. The clear quartz top layer makes the gem harder and less susceptible to scratches. Since top-quality natural opals are extremely rare and expensive, many are treated with colorless oil, wax or resin to enhance their appearance. Ranking a hardness of 5.5-6.5 on the Mohs Scale, these treatments also fill cracks in the stone to improve durability.
A species of quartz, opal is one of the few gemstones that are sedimentary in origin. Millions of years ago, after ancient seas receded, silica-laden sediment was deposited around shorelines. Erosion made much of this silica into a solution that filled cracks in rocks, clay and fossils. Layers upon layers of silica jell were added to each other over millions of years and became precious opals. The stones still contain 6 to 10 percent water, a remnant of ancient seas. Because they have high water content, opals should be protected from heat and strong light in order to prevent them from drying out and cracking.
Opal is found in a range of hues, including white opal (the most common), black opal (the most valuable), boulder opal (black opal with iron oxide), crystal or water opal (which is transparent), and fire opal (which features a bright solid color). Prices can vary from a few dollars per carat for white opal to more than $1,000 per carat for fine black opal.
White opals tend to have more diffused fire due to their light background color. Rare black opals have a black to dark gray body color that allows for the fire to be the most noticeable, making them the most valuable type of opal. Boulder opals are cut with the natural host rock left on the back. They are found with interesting hills and valleys on the surface and inclusions in the foreground, forming odd shapes that make them a designer’s delight. Crystal opal is transparent with flashes of rainbow colors, while fire opal only occasionally has this play of color.
Fire opal’s backdrop color is the main attraction. It has recently become very popular as jewelry designers are growing to appreciate its bold presence and bright color. With hot yellows, fiery oranges and juicy reds, the fire opal is a bright gemstone that is usually faceted to add sparkle and enhance the fabulous color.
The relatively rare Peruvian blue opal comes from the Andes Mountains in Peru and was cherished by the Incas. It features the translucent turquoise-blue color of tropical oceans and has soft, relaxing energies said to be good for quieting the mind during meditation. It is thought to relieve stress and bring about a tranquil, healing nature. Peruvian blue opal is also believed to increase clear thinking, spark creativity and aid in sleep.
The vast majority of the world's opal supply comes from Australia, first discovered there by gold panners in 1863. In addition to the small quantity of opal produced in Kenya and Canada, white opal is mined in Brazil, black opal is found only at Lightning Ridge in Australia, and crystal and fire opal can be found in the United States and Mexico.
Opals have been treasured for thousands of years throughout the world. A beautiful opal called the “orphanus” was featured in the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor and was said to guard the regal honor. The Aztecs mined opal in South and Central America and Archaeologist Louis Leakey found 6,000-year-old opal artifacts in a cave in Kenya. Napoleon gave Josephine a beautiful opal with brilliant red flashes called “The Burning of Troy,” making her his Helen. To this day, opals are still set in the crown jewels of France.
Shakespeare regarded opal as a symbol of shifting inconstancy, comparing its play of color to play of mind. In “Twelfth Night” he wrote, “Now the melancholy God protect thee, and the tailor make thy garments of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is opal.” In the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott caused a reputation that opals were unlucky. The heroine of his popular novel had her life force caught in the opal she wore in her hair and died when its fire was extinguished.
For thousands of years, opals have been revered for their supposed mystical powers. Romans thought the stone kept the wearer safe from disease and wore it near the heart to ward off evil and protect travelers. Ancient Arabs believed that opals fell from heaven in flashes of lightning, which explained their fiery colors. During the Middle Ages, opal was called “ophthalmios,” meaning “eye stone,” due to a widespread belief that it was beneficial to eyesight. Some thought its effect on sight could render the wearer invisible, and the stone was even recommended for thieves. In medieval Scandinavia, blonde women wore opals in their hair to prevent it from going gray.
Today, opals are still believed to hold magical powers. White opals, when used in rituals on a full moon night, are said to bring the moon goddess’ powers into full effect within the practitioner. A fire opal surrounded with 10 or 12 diamonds and worn on a gold necklace is said to have excellent money-drawing power.
Opals have been said to bring good luck, grant vigor and ideally protect travelers. The stones have long been believed to develop and increase mental capacities and open the unused powers of the mind. The colorful fire in opals is said to develop a more creative imagination and help recall past lives. It is believed that the most magically powerful opals come from Lightning Ridge in Australia and that the gem loses its power once its owner dies.
An ancient Persian legend states the Earth rests on a gigantic sapphire that gives its blue reflection to the sky. The most popular colors for sapphires range from light blue to a blue that appears black. Hence, the name was derived from the Latin form of the Greek word for blue, “sapphirus.” Bright daylight makes most sapphires shine more vividly than the somewhat muted artificial light. So the most highly cherished color for blue sapphires is not the darkest blue, but a deep and satiated blue, which even in dim, artificial light remains to appear blue.
While sapphires are best known for being velvety blue, it was decided long ago to consider all gemstones of the mineral family corundum to be sapphires. Non-blue sapphires are termed “fancy” and can be nearly any color, including yellow, green, white/colorless, pink, orange, brown, purple, golden and even black. Red corundum is the exception, however, and was given the special name of “ruby.” Since pink is really just a light red, the International Colored Gemstone Association has resolved to consider light shades of the red hue to be included in the category ruby, as it is too difficult to legislate where red ends and pink begins. In practice, however, pink shades of corundum are known as either pink ruby or pink sapphire. All sapphires rank a 9.0 on the Mohs Scale, second only to diamonds in hardness.
There are a great number of varieties of sapphire, many of which are quite rare and highly sought-after in the gemstone market. A rare orange-pink variety, known as padparadscha, can be even more valuable than blue sapphire. Pronounced PAD-PA-RAD-SHAH, the name comes from the Sinhalese word for lotus blossom. Endowed with both pink and orange color components, its hues range from pastels to fiery shades. Padparadscha sapphires are usually heat treated to improve and intensify their color, while the color of untreated stones will fade over time. An untreated padparadscha sapphire that has faded will return to its original pinkish-orange color, however, if exposed to sunlight for about an hour.
Another rare variety of sapphire is known as the color-changing sapphire. This stone exhibits different colors in different light. In natural light, color-changing sapphire is blue, but in artificial light, it is violet.
For experts and connoisseurs, the Kashmir-color is considered the most beautiful and valuable shade. It features a pure and intensive blue, which is enhanced by a fine, silky gloss. Its color does not change in artificial light, but remains intense with a deep, velvety sheen. Setting the standard for the color of top-quality sapphires, Kashmir sapphires were found in 1880 after an avalanche. They were intensely mined for only eight years until the source was depleted. The Burma-color is also considered especially valuable, ranging from rich royal blue to deep cornflower blue. Ceylon sapphires are prized as well for the luminosity and brilliance of their light to medium blue color.
There is a translucent variety of sapphire, called star sapphire, which displays a six-point star when cut into a smooth domed cabochon. The mineral rutile is embedded in an asterisk-shape within the stone, causing light to reflect in a phenomenon called “asterism.” Six- or twelve-ray stars appear to magically glide across the surface of the stones as they are moved. Star sapphires and rubies are expensive rarities and should always display the stars exactly in the center of the gem. Value is influenced by the intensity of the body color and the strength and sharpness of the star. The star stone is said to be the home of each person’s angel, who lives there in contentment with the sapphire’s spirit.
The stone is mined in many parts of the world. The oldest sapphire mines are situated in Ceylon, today called Sri Lanka, where gemstones were mined in ancient times. Most blue sapphires today come from Thailand or Australia, but sapphires from Kashmir and Myanmar (formerly Burma) are considered the most rare and highly prized. Sapphires are readily available in sizes of up to 2.00ct, but gems weighing 5.00-10.00ct are not unusual. The cushion-cut Logan Sapphire from Sri Lanka weighs an astounding 423.00ct and can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There is also a 258.00ct stone set in the Russian crown, which is kept in the Diamond Fund in Moscow.
Because the gem has long symbolized sincere love and enduring faithfulness, blue sapphires are often given in engagement rings to express commitment and loyalty. Many women throughout the world decide on the blue stone for their engagement rings, as the gem also represents truth, friendship, harmony and consistency. Sapphire blue has become a color related to anything permanent and reliable, making it an ideal stone to symbolize the promise of marriage.
Often referred to as “Gem of the Heavens,” sapphire also symbolizes a noble soul. It is September’s birthstone and is traditionally given as 5th and 45th wedding anniversary gifts. Star sapphires are given for the 65th anniversary. The color sapphire-blue is known for representing clarity and competence. In fact, the first computer to ever declare victory over a chess grandmaster and world champion was named “Deep Blue.”
Sapphires have been associated with magical powers throughout the ages. The Greeks identified white sapphires with Apollo and the oracles at Delphi used them to tap into the subconscious and super conscious. During the Middle Ages, sapphires symbolized the tranquility of the heavens and wearing them was thought to bring peace, happiness and purity of the soul. The color blue became the symbol of the union between a priest and the heavens, so sapphires came to be adorned on the rings of bishops. Soldiers wore them to prevent capture by enemies and kings wore the gemstone to defend against harm and put themselves in divine favor. This supposed “divine favor” is why sapphires were often the gemstone of choice for high priests and royalty throughout history. In fact, the British Crown Jewels contain a number of notable sapphires.
Today, sapphires are still believed to hold special powers. The stone is said to provide healing properties for mental illness and depression. It can be considered an aid to psycho kinesis, telepathy and clairvoyance, while providing spiritual enlightenment and inner peace. White sapphires, like diamonds, are considered the guardians of love, enhancing it and ensuring fidelity in marriage. The most powerful type of the gem is said to be the star sapphire. They are believed to protect against negative energy and have a calming effect that allows the mind to experience tranquility, joy and clear thinking.
Carnelian, also spelled cornelian, ranges in color from light brownish-red, to dark reddish-orange, to deep transparent red, to bright orange. The rich color is due to the iron content and can be placed in the sun to change brown tints to red. A translucent to opaque stone, carnelian is moderately hard with a hardness of 6.5-7.0 on the Mohs Scale. This relatively inexpensive gem features great warmth and beauty and is often found as engraved cameos in antique jewelry. It is the stone of happiness and harmony in love.
Some of the oldest examples of jewelry contain carnelian and it has been featured in nearly every great civilization. The greatest myths surrounding the stone come from the Egyptian culture. At an excavation site in Ur, archaeologists uncovered the tomb of Pu-Abi, a Sumerian Queen from the third millennium, B.C. She wore a robe that contained carnelian, along with other precious and semi-precious materials. Ancient Egyptian tombs are full of examples of carnelian jewels because of the Egyptians’ belief in the stone’s power in the afterlife. According to their system, the Egyptian goddess Isis used amulets of carnelian to ensure a soul’s safe passage into the next world. The Egyptians so revered the power of the stone that it was one of three used most often in their jewelry, along with turquoise and lapis lazuli. Carnelian was a symbol of life in Pharaonic Egypt, and adorns the precious funerary pectoral of Tutankhamon.
Because carnelian has been revered for its healing, spiritual and creative qualities, Buddhists in China and India created amulets inlaid with carnelian and other semi-precious stones, ascribing to them powers of protection and utilizing them for many rituals. To this day, Buddhists in China, India and Tibet believe in the protective powers of carnelian and often follow the Egyptian practice of setting the stone with turquoise and lapis lazuli for enhanced power. The stone also appears in the Bible as one of the stones included on Aaron’s breastplate.
Carnelian has been recommended as an aid for anyone having a weak voice or being reluctant to speak. The belief was that carrying or wearing carnelian would give the person courage both to speak boldly and loudly. In fact, Napoleon is recorded to have carried one he found in Egypt and to have had faith in it as a talisman. Perhaps he followed the belief reported by Merrill: “The wearing of carnelian insured victory in all contests save those of love.”
Carnelian is a form of chalcedony, which is the microcrystalline form of quartz. Because quartz is the most common crystal on Earth, deposits of carnelian are found throughout the world. The most famous sites are in India, Brazil, Uruguay and Japan. The deposits are usually found in the lower temperature and lower pressure zones near the Earth’s surface, but the best carnelian is found in India.